16 September 2007

Stepford Wives เมืองนี้มีความลับ

(Spoiler alert!)

The past week I got a chance to read Stepford Wives for the first time, after hearing about it for a long time. It's a fun read and the Thai translation didn't fare too bad. The plot is pretty straightforward, following suit the tradition of the suspense novel. Joanna Eberhart moves from New York to a small, yet pristine town of Stepford. The town has no crime records, no poor people, and every woman is beautiful and has big boobs, to the delight of their husbands. I'm pretty sure most of you out there must've known the plot, which is so much reproduced and parodied. Yet, the sheer amount of repetitions and parodies reflect the poignant and well-crafted plot, thanks to the talent of Ira Levin. (It's quite surprising to learn that a male writer can create a plot that captures the imagination of feminists!)

The truth that lies behind the perfection of Stepford may be linked to a pretty well-established tradition in Western literature, from romantic texts such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter', and Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' to modern films such as The Invasion of Body Snatchers and The Village of the Damned. The use of robots as a conclusion may entail what Freud calls 'the uncanny', which points towards the unknown or the mysterious in something familiar or well-acquainted. In fact, in his essay on 'the uncanny', Freud does mention the use of robots and discuss its impact in Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' in great detail.

What the uncanny in this film points towards is perhaps that the identity of women is split in essence. This division at the core of female identity is perhaps the reason why the film is pretty errie, especially in its portrayal of female images -- not that they're so far from truth, but that they're so essentially true (of course, despite the exaggerations). Some women set these images in Stepford as their goal, aiming to be picture perfect to please their husband. Even Eberhart herself (I believe unwittingly) tries to please her husband, both physically and sexually. This division (to please men and to fight men) lies at the heart of female identity. This may be the reason why despite the overall picture at present that modern women have rights to do things and may do things better than men, when they see Stepford women still enjoy pleasing their husbands and doing household chores they can't help feeling nonplussed, not in the least because what these Stepford women do may be part of the desire that modern women keep repressed.

Well, what I'm getting at is this: that patriarchy is so strong and powerful that women, despite living in modern times, can perpetrate under this regime without knowing, as it penetrates into the deepest layers of their psyche. Even though we're at the moment (I believe) facing the third phase of feminism in which sexual difference is not as important as an investigation into the process whereby how this difference comes about in the first place, we cannot deny that it's the idea diffused only in the academia or among urban people who receive western education. Suburban or rural people, like people in Stepford, put their priority elsewhere: men, of course. (Even some of my colleagues and students, despite their well-grounded knowledge of feminism, still talk about men and how to get them!)

This fact can be related to another startling notion: that women, more than men, may be a main engine behind this sexual inequality. In the book, it's Bobbie who may have killed Joanna with a knife in the kitchen (symbolically a woman's weapon in a woman's space). This may reflect another dimension: that some women may enjoy the image of Stepford's feminine ideal and negotiate from that standpoint instead -- like using their wiles and charms to trick their husbands. They may resent putting themselves into the roles traditionally designated as masculine, such as bus drivers, miners, and engineers. They may want men to give up their seats for them on bus, etc. That's the reason why there's a good twist in the film, which emphasises the role of women in perpetrating the patriarchal ideology.
Well, we can call our moment now a disillusioned one, where women not only need to negotiate with men's power, but with their own repressive needs and desires (part of these of course are influenced by patriarchy). Women need to be frank with these and negotiate with their own ideals set out in the first and second phases of feminism. Hence, at the moment we have chicklit, which clearly shows that one of their priorities now is finding a good partner, not unlike those novels in the Jane Austen era.
Are women coming full circle? My answer is: of course not. Even though the history seems to be repeated and we are back at the starting point, it cannot be denied that we are here, disillusioned and more aware of where we're standing. But what I'm concerned is: what does this amount to? Where should the politics of feminism lie if this is the direction we're taking? Do we simply acknowledge the power of patriarchy and negotiate 'inside' it with more awareness? Hmm ... this begs serious thinking, which fortunately is not my task to answer ... It's for you all, readers, who are women.

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